Imperial College London

Researcher calls for more action to tackle sleep disorders


Professor Mary Morrell

Finding new ways to treat breathing problems during sleep should be a priority for the NHS, says an Imperial expert.

Professor Mary Morrell, Professor of Sleep and Respiratory Physiology at the National Heart and Lung Institute, talked about her work to develop new treatments and technologies to treat obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) in older patients at the Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre seminar earlier this month. She was joined by Professor Nick Franks, Professor of Biophysics and Anaesthetics at Imperial College London, who talked about his work on understanding the reasons why people sleep and what happens when they don’t get enough.

Professor Morrell said: “The prevalence of breathing problems when people go to sleep is increasing, especially in older people and those who are obese. This will continue to rise as the population of older people increases, and also with the rise in obesity. It is a healthcare problem that we can’t afford to ignore. We need to find new ways to treat sleep disorders so we can improve people’s qualtity of life and their health.”

OSA is a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing and causing disrupted sleep with profound sleepiness. Around 10 million people in the UK have OSA, ranging from mild to severe. The disease mostly affects people who are overweight and those who are older people and can affect quality of life. It also increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart problems, stroke, and potentially increased memory problems.

In a packed lecture theatre at Royal Brompton Hospital, Professor Morrell talked about her work on using a continuous positive airway pressure device to treat OSA in older patients.

For people with moderate or severe OSA, doctors usually recommend a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which consists of a small pump that delivers pressurised air into the nose through a mask, stopping the throat from closing. Previous studies have established the benefits of CPAP in middle-aged people with OSA, but until now there has been little research on whether the treatment is useful and cost-effective for older patients. The global population aged 80 years and over is projected to triple, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050 and as a result cases of OSA will rise.

Professor Morrell, in collaboration with clinical doctors across the UK, found that the CPAP device can be just as effective in older patients, as it is in younger people, and leads to a reduction in how sleepy patients feel in the daytime. It also reduces healthcare costs. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are currently, in the process of rewriting guidelines for treating breathing difficulties that occur during sleep. Professor Morrell and her colleagues hope that their research means that more patients will be able to benefit from CPAP treatment.

Professor Morrell also outlined some of the technologies she is developing with engineers at Imperial College London that can be used to better understand and monitor the impact of sleep. For example, the team are developing a device that can be placed in the inner ear to measure brain activity rather than placing electrodes on a patient’s head.

The seminars are an example of the work carried out by Imperial College AHSC, a joint initiative between Imperial College London and three NHS hospital trusts. It aims to transform healthcare by turning scientific discoveries into medical advances to benefit local, national and global populations in as fast a timeframe as possible.


Maxine Myers

Maxine Myers
Communications Division

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